Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/10/14/it_tyranny/
HM Treasury unplugged - Government's IT late list
Why does it always go so wrong?
Analysis The Conservatives have helped expose, again, the systemic failure of Government IT projects with a seemingly trivial parliamentary question about costs and timescales at HM Treasury.
A written answer extracted by Theresa Villiers, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, discovered that IT projects were running a total of 17 years late at HM Treasury under the leadership of Gordon Brown.
On the face of it, the answer provided an exhaustive list of 88 Treasury IT projects, about a third of which were running late. Altogether, taunted the Tories, the Treasury was running 17 years late with its computer systems. Or Brown, they might say, was 17 years too late.
No great surprise there, then. Yet a third of these projects are coming in under budget, not what you might expect of a tally of government IT projects, but perhaps in character for a department full of accountants. Most of the rest are either precisely or very nearly on budget.
One of the most notable thing about this tally is that it requires a parliamentary question for it to be published at all, and even then the bare minimum of information is conveyed.
This, and those projects in the list for which the Treasury has not been able to provide any information whatsoever, illustrate the lack of transparency and accountability in British public life.
Take, for example, the HM Revenue & Customs' modernisation of its PAYE tax system, called MPPC 2 (Modernising PAYE Processes for Customers). The Treasury answer claimed the project started in February, but had no idea when it was to finish, or how much it might cost.
MPPC 2 has been something of a mystery project that neither HMRC nor its prime contractor, Cap Gemini cared to discuss openly, especially when they were asked about rumours that it had been left hanging because of a lack of resources and snarl-ups with other HRMC systems, such as the notorious tax credits.
In the summer when we were asking about this, HMRC would say, we can't comment on work being done by our subcontractors, Cap Gemini, and CapG would say, we can't comment on work we're doing for our employer, HMRC.
Why so evasive? Surely, a bunch of accountants wouldn't let anyone start a major IT upgrade without any idea of cost or timescale?* That's like telling your builder to take your credit card and let himself out when he's finished the house extension.
Fortunately, another recent parliamentary question on government IT projects provides some context. On 4 September, in answer to a similar question by the Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable, the Department of Health provided a tally as well. The only project for which the department had no clue of when it started, when it would end and what it might cost was the infamous National Programme for IT, the IT industry's answer to the Millennium Dome.
The DoH answer waffled that NPfIT didn't really having a start or end date because it was sort of, well, "substantial", being planned on the fly, "incremental", and "providing increasingly richer functionality over time." **
Similarly, HMRC told The Register in June that MPPC 2 didn't have a deadline because it didn't need one. It was a special project. It had a new sort of deadline, which was sort of amorphous. Its size and complexity had something to do with this, but it was a little vague.
This is only part of the story, however. NPfIT faltered because it was imposed from above, without reference to the clinicians who were to use it. Connecting for Health, the organisation responsible for NPfIT, admitted that if it had consulted the intended users of the system more widely and included their views in its design, they might have a better idea of what it was doing.
It was trying to be too big, too clever, and had tried to impose its world view on too many people. It's a common problem with computer systems, as was the case with the Child Support Agency computer system, which made a major contribution to the death of its own agency, and HMRC's tax credits system, which had imposed a rigid and impractical method of working on staff.
The problem is what you might call the tyranny of IT, or process control, which is frequently a problem in large IT projects. Gargantuan computer systems, like Stalinist political systems, fail in their duty to their constituent parts because they cannot consider their differing, intricate needs.
Top-down modernisation has also proved too much for HMRC employees of late; 7,000 of them went out on strike over the matter at the end of July, and 15,000 are currently on a work to rule and overtime ban.
The industrial action was in direct response to what you might call the computerisation of the workforce, after £8m worth of fancy pants consultants decided they knew the best way for the department's administrators to do their jobs.
What HMRC did was take the principles of LEAN manufacturing and apply them to PAYE administration in the name of Gershon and the ship-shaping of the public sector along private sector principles.
LEAN is a method of making business processes more efficient that came out of the eminently successful Japanese system of Kaizen manufacturing. LEAN, a new wheeze in the financial services sector, revolutionised manufacturing by including the workforce in the design of more efficient ways to do their own jobs. Consultation was a part of the system, rather than something people at the top of the industrial hierarchy did half-heartedly, or when they'd run out of ideas. It made the the old Fordist hierarchies look as effective as dictatorships.
But the HMRC approach to LEAN, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union, which is leading the industrial action, was to impose it from above. Staff weren't consulted, they were merely given a working regime that involved managers watching their hourly work rates, rather like call centres monitor their employees to make sure they work to specification.
HMRC said consultation was an important part of what it does. It usually consulted with the union, it said, though it sometimes used surveys and team meetings instead. Ian Lawrence, national officer of Revenue & Customs for the PCS union, said the new regime was "like a modern day version of a sweatshop".
HMRC staff are now in a stand-off with their modernising managers, demanding that they have their voices heard and have their ideas can contribute to the design of the new, LEAN tax administration.
That's a sensible idea, as any LEAN expert will tell you, when applied to their working processes. But it's habitually overlooked in the design of computer systems, because it means trouble and cost for managers. Yet it's far cheaper and easier, the thinking goes, to have people design their working days around the needs of a computer system, than to design a computer system to work around the needs of people. This dilemma will become a more pertinent topic as computers and databases are employed increasingly as a means of shaping and regimenting society.
If the PCS win the concessions it is seeking with its industrial action, and the MPPC 2 computer system costs and deadlines are as flexible as the Treasury said they are, HMRC administrators might yet get into a position where they control the computers, rather than the other way round. ®
* The Treasury's Actuary department is three years late with its BS7799 compliance system as well, according to the parliamentary answer. There's a very dry joke in there somewhere.
** "The aim is to achieve substantial integration of health and social care information systems in England under the national programme by 2010. Clearly systems will need to be upgraded in the light of new technology and new national health service requirements beyond that date. The approach, in line with best practice, is to implement new services incrementally, avoiding ‘big bang’ approach, and providing increasingly richer functionality over time. The value of the contracts let for the core components of the national programme amounts to £6.2 billion over 10 years, and this has not increased. "